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Column: Indigenous tribes took over Alcatraz 51 years ago. Read the ‘holy grail’ of the occupation

A group of Indigenous people stand on the dock at Alcatraz under signs that read "Indians Welcome" and "Indian Land"
An image from Nov. 25, 1969 captures a moment in the 19-month Indigenous occupation of Alcatraz, which drew attention to Indigenous civil rights.
(Associated Press)
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“We are about to leave for Alcatraz, maybe for the last time,” reads the ledger entry, written in a tidy blue cursive script. “To this beautiful little Island, which means a little something, which no one will ever understand, my feelings.”

It is signed by Marie B. Quitiquit of Stockton.

This entry is remarkable for the sentimentality it displays toward Alcatraz, a barren, rocky outcropping in the San Francisco Bay that once functioned as a notorious island penitentiary. It is remarkable for other reasons too: Quitiquit, who was of Pomo-Modoc descent, wrote those words into a book 50 years ago this week, on Nov. 20, 1970 — exactly one year into the 19-month Indigenous occupation of Alcatraz Island that lasted from 1969 to 1971 and generated headlines around the world.

Beneath Quitiquit’s words someone wrote in capital letters:
“I SHALL NEVER FORGET
“MY PEOPLE, MY LAND
“ALCATRAZ”

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“RED POWER,” reads another ledger entry that runs up and down the length of one page in large letters. “CUSTER HAD IT COMING,” says an all-caps addendum at the bottom of yet another. The book’s tattered cloth cover features the words “INDIAN LAW” drawn in an elaborate typeface in red ballpoint ink, surrounded by renderings of Indigenous patterns, an arrowhead and more names.

Inside are thousands of entries written by the men, women and children who occupied Alcatraz in the name of Indigenous civil rights, along with those who came to learn about the occupation or show material support. Apaches from New Mexico, Navajos from Arizona, Utes from Colorado, Kiowas from Oklahoma, Chippewas from Minnesota and Sioux Indians from San Jose all came together and entered their names, their hometowns and their tribal affiliations into this old accounting ledger as they landed on Alcatraz.

And it is now possible, for the first time ever, to flip through its yellowed pages — at least virtually.

The cover of the Alcatraz Logbook features names and drawings and the words "INDIAN LAW" in capital letters in red ink
The cover of the Alcatraz Logbook, which recorded visitors to Alcatraz Island during the 19-month Indigenous occupation of the site starting in 1969.
(Sharon Rogers and Marshall McKay / Autry Museum)


The Autry Museum of the American West has uploaded a high-resolution scan of the Alcatraz Logbook to its website (theautry.org), making it possible to examine the signatures and observations left behind by the more than 3,000 people who signed it — including then-unknown activists such as Wilma Mankiller and John Trudell who would go on to become national figures in the fight for Indigenous civil rights.

The Alcatraz Logbook is an object out of the past that seems to connect fully with the present. It is an artifact of an earlier era of protest that speaks powerfully to our own through the individual signatures of ordinary people who worked collectively to bring about change. It is a banal day-to-day compendium of the occupation that also speaks to history’s reach, since the effects of Alcatraz on art and culture ripple into the present.

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A scan of two pages from the Alcatraz Logbook shows signatures along with the phrase "CUSTER HAD IT COMING"
A scan of pages from the Alcatraz Logbook shows entries from Tuesday, Dec. 23, 1969 — with the phrase “CUSTER HAD IT COMING” at bottom right.
(Sharon Rogers and Marshall McKay / Autry Museum)

“It’s this holy grail of Alcatraz research,” says Kent Blansett, an associate professor of Indigenous studies and history at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “It’s been known among the veterans of Alcatraz, and as a scholar of Alcatraz, I’ve known about it. But I’ve never had access to it until now.”

The Alcatraz Logbook has been displayed at the Autry at least once in the past (in connection with an exhibition devoted to the work of Pomo healer and basket weaver Mabel McKay in 2016). But it had never been reproduced in a way that might make it broadly available to those wanting to know more about the occupation.

“It gives us insight into the fact that this was a movement that involved all nations,” he adds. “You see individuals. You see families. You see children. You see a dynamic snapshot of the diversity of Indian country within this book. And, resoundingly, it showcases how many people took the risk to come to San Francisco to be present and take the additional risk of signing this book.”

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An unexpected discovery

Earlier this year, when Autry curator Joe D. Horse Capture began working on installing the traveling exhibition “When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California” (a show that originated at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento), he began to examine the Autry’s archives to see what other objects he might incorporate into the show.

He stumbled across the logbook. And, in the process, his own family’s history. Page 22, it turns out, bears his own father’s signature.

Horse Capture, a member of the A’aninin tribe of Montana, was 6 years old and living in Oakland when the Alcatraz occupation began in 1969. At that point, the island had been abandoned as a prison site for half a dozen years. There had been one previous attempt at Indigenous activism on the island in 1964 when a small group of Sioux Indians took over the site — invoking the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868, which promised the Sioux any federal land that had been abandoned or was out of use.

That occupation lasted only a few hours. But it set the stage for Nov. 20, 1969, when more than seven dozen activists — most of them students — not only took over the island but held it for 19 straight months. Like the previous takeover, the activists, who dubbed themselves the Indians of All Tribes (IAT), invoked the 19th century treaty, and demanded that Alcatraz be turned into a Native American cultural site that would include a spiritual center, an ecology center and a museum.

A color photo shows a man standing before a tepee on the Alcatraz shore with the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance
Activist John Trudell, who was of Sioux descent, stands on the Alcatraz shoreline during the Indigenous occupation of the island in November 1969.
(Associated Press)

This mediagenic protest drew attention to its cause with a newsletter and a radio show — drawing press and celebrities, including visits from Ethel Kennedy, Jane Fonda and members of the band Creedence Clearwater Revival, who donated money for a boat to ferry supplies.

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Its high profile also led Indigenous people from around the country to rally to the cause. Among the activists who joined in the occupation was Horse Capture’s father, George P. Horse Capture, who was then working as a welding inspector for the state of California.

On at least one outing, Horse Capture came to the island with his father. He remembers getting into a crowded boat to make the journey across the bay. At the age of 6, he says, he was rather mystified by the proceedings: “I’m thinking, why are a bunch of Native folks going to an island that is a prison voluntarily? Until my father explained that it’s a very conceptual act.”

As Richard Oakes, a key organizer of the occupation, once stated: “Alcatraz was not an island, it was an idea.”

History: In 1969, a group of Native Americans took possession of the island, offering to buy it for glass beads and cloth. Little material evidence remains of their venture, but its legacy survives nonetheless.

The visits proved transformative to the senior Horse Capture, who was energized by the sight of Indigenous people demanding justice and reclaiming their heritage.

He grew his hair out and re-engaged his family’s spiritual and cultural traditions. He changed his name from the Anglicized “Capture” back to the family name “Horse Capture.” He also gave up his steady government job to go back to school and study anthropology, and later became a pioneering curator — ultimately helping establish the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

“That episode changed his life forever,” says Horse Capture of his father’s experience during the Alcatraz occupation. “And I’m assuming that the story of our family is the story of many families.”

Blansett, author of “A Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and the Red Power Movement,” says that the occupation indeed flipped a cultural switch.

“This was symbolic for liberating Indigenous people throughout the Western Hemisphere.”

The 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay is one of the most notable acts of political resistance in American Indian history.

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The Alcatraz occupation came at a time in which the cultural position of Indigenous people within U.S. society was fragile.

So-called “termination” policies enacted in the wake of World War II were grinding away at the sovereignty of Indigenous tribes, dissolving treaties and eliminating reservations — freeing up land for logging and mining. Moreover, federal relocation programs encouraged Indigenous people to abandon their traditional lands for major urban areas with the promise of good jobs — jobs that rarely seemed to materialize.

Along with the notorious Indian boarding schools of the 19th and 20th century, in which Indigenous children were prohibited from engaging in their traditional cultural practices, these efforts collectively represented a concerted government attempt to assimilate — one could say “disappear” — Indigenous people into white “mainstream” society, and thereby eliminate what federal reports of the 1950s described as “the Indian problem.”

A scan of an accounting ledger shows signatures in different colored ink and a cartoon drawing of a Plains Indian boy
The Alcatraz Logbook contains thousands of signatures; it also features funny doodles.
(Sharon Rogers and Marshall McKay / Autry Museum)

“Everybody that was making their way to the island knew that it was now or never,” says Blansett, who is of Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Shawnee and Potawatomi descent. “They were terminating our tribes and they were terminating our individual connections. Alcatraz changes all of that.”

“Alcatraz also represented great street theater,” he adds. “It symbolized this prison that had been abandoned by the federal government, just like the federal government had abandoned Native people. It was a place with no water, no electricity, no agriculture. It was crumbling — and it resembled what some of our reservations were like. And that resonated.”

The occupation spurred similar actions around the country (including a takeover of Catalina Island by Chicano activists in Southern California in 1972) and helped foment the broader American Indian Movement of the 1970s. Collectively, the activism led to a wave of legislative changes to policies affecting Indigenous people, including an official end to termination policies.

The activism also invigorated Indigenous culture. “There is all kinds of art that came out of it,” says Blansett.

Eight lithographs stacked in two rows show stylized faces of Indigenous people with facts about Indigenous history
Frank LaPena, “History of California Indians,” circa 1990, from “When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California.”
(Frank LaPena)

This included painting, sculpture and graphic design — such as the paintings of Frank LaPena (Nomtipom Wintu) and Brian D. Tripp (Karuk) which directly address Indigenous activist history. These ideas are at the core of the Autry’s “When I Remember I See Red.”

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The show, unfortunately, like many others, is currently trapped in a pandemic limbo — fully installed, yet closed to the public until museums are allowed to reopen. But some of its spirit can be found in the Alcatraz Logbook, which is available for viewing 24 hours a day from your laptop.

In 1972, the mission of the Brown Berets was to occupy Catalina Island — land they believed belonged to Mexico. Nearly 48 years later, Chicano leader David Sanchez revisits the island and the legacy of the Berets’ three-week occupation.

To read its pages is to find heartfelt sentiment. (An entry by Vickie Domingo of Salinas, Calif., reports that “the island is going to do plenty for me and my children and my grandchildren, and their children after them, to make them free and peaceful.”) It is also to find evidence of the class cutup. (Someone entered signatures for “Daddy Warbucks” and “John Wayne.”)

The inscriptions also tell a story about the book’s origins.

One of the log’s inside flaps features a tidy note in blue script that reads: “HISTORY: This book found in the old boiler room by myself, brought to the pier, for registration of new residents and visitors.”

The entry is signed by Luwana Quitiquit, a Pomo-Modoc Indigenous activist who was one of many women to have important roles in the occupation of Alcatraz. (Marie Quitiquit, listed at the top of this story, was likely Luwana’s mother.)

Interestingly, the book, an old accounting ledger, echoes the visuals of 19th century Indigenous ledger paintings created by Plains Indians (another example of Indigenous people making creative use out of the mundane tools of government bureaucracy).

A scan shows two pages of the Alcatraz Logbook with signatures and a hand-drawn peace symbol
A pair of pages from the Alcatraz Logbook features an entry by Marie B. Quitiquit expressing her feelings for “this beautiful little island.”
(Sharon Rogers and Marshall McKay / Autry Museum)

After the occupation ended, the Alcatraz Logbook remained in Quitiquit’s care. When she died in 2011, it passed to her son, Alan Harrison. It was from Harrison that Marshall McKay, chairman emeritus at the Autry, acquired it.

"[Harrison] mentioned that he had this logbook,” recalls McKay. “I said I’d love to see it. He brought it to me. I was purchasing some art from him — some art and weavings — and he brought it. ... He said, you’re involved with museums and curation, maybe you could save it for posterity.”

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McKay, who is of Pomo-Wintun descent, says he told him: “I’ll save it for our Pomo people — it’ll tell the story about Alcatraz a little bit more.”

The book tells many stories — stories that are still in the process of being written.

“I think Alcatraz reminds us that the Native story continues to move forward,” says Horse Capture. “Alcatraz reminds us as a country that there is still a lot that is unresolved regarding America’s first inhabitants. ... And that Native people, long ago, but also in recent history and today, will continue to find ways to be heard.”

The Alcatraz Logbook not only helps elevate their voices. It gives us their names.

'When I Remember I See Red'

Info: The Autry Museum remains closed due to COVID-19 regulations, but it is possible to view the Alcatraz Logbook and artworks from the show on the museum’s website, theautry.org.